Answered Prayers

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

In early 1963, I was a first lieutenant flying C-135s out of McGuire AFB in New Jersey. For some time, I had been volunteering for any assignment I thought might get me out of the C-135 and into a smaller more maneuverable combat aircraft. In May, I got word that my prayers were answered. I was being assigned to a new start-up unit, the 19th TASS, at Bien Hoa , flying O-1s.
When God wants to punish you, he answers your prayers, or, some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
Before long I found myself at Hurlburt in O-1 training. Within a few hours I had soloed an O-1A off of a grass field somewhere west of Hurlburt. I also got the AGOS course and I clearly remember one little phrase dropped by one of the briefers. “We are viewing the outcome with cautious optimism,” he said. I wondered how we could possibly lose this one. At the time, I still thought reason, good judgment, and courage prevailed among our military and civilian leadership.
On 22 July, I finished the O-1 training at Hurlburt and departed to Memphis, Tennessee to marry the lovely Marilyn Dwyer. But that’s another story.
Within a week or so, I found myself flying out of Travis AFB, California, enroute to Clark AB in the Philippines, and then on to Saigon. Our transport was a Super Constellation chartered from World Airways – a slow way to get across the Pacific. Our first stop was at Hickam AB in Honolulu. Enroute, I sat next to Captain Percy Collins who was going to the 19th TASS as the Administrative Officer. They gave us food chits to use in the terminal while the plane was being refueled. The long food line diverted me to the bar where they cheerfully accepted my chit for booze. Percy saw me at the bar and joined in. We got back on the plane real relaxed and slept until the next refueling stop – Wake Island. This time we smuggled a quart of Ballantine Scotch back on the plane (charter flights back in the 60s didn’t serve liquor). We repeated the routine at the next stop – Andersen AFB in Guam. As a result, we managed to stay drunk for about 36 hours and finally woke up at Clark with a pair of first-class hangovers. There was no break in the Philippines for Jungle Survival School at that time. The need for the O-1 in Vietnam was immediate, and so we were processed rather quickly through the Philippines and Saigon. The whole process left me feeling a bit insecure, but everything seemed to straighten out when I finally got to Bien Hoa and the 19th TASS.
I checked into Hooch 135 and found letters from the First National Bank of Colorado Springs. I was overdrawn, but they covered my butt. Then the rains came, and I found out the hard way why the other beds in the hooch were pulled to the geometric center of the screened in structure. No side wall protection. Louvers came later and we could finally take full advantage of the floor space.
Operationally, the first thing I found out was, we had no airplanes. They were on a boat somewhere to be assembled by Air Vietnam once they reached Saigon.
Ultimately, the planes did arrive and were assembled. Major Dooley, the Operations Officer, was sent to Saigon on 7 August to pick up the first O-1D and fly it back. The O-1D had a variable-pitch propeller, and no one was checked out in it. After what must have been an interesting conversation with the top brass (we lieutenants were never privy to these discussions, only the results), Major Dooley was declared the resident check-pilot and hence the pick-up and check-out- guy. I flew with him the next day for 35 minutes and was declared fully qualified from both seats.
I took a few local orientation flights to get familiar with the area. In those days, two of us were given a plane for the day and instructed not to break it or lose it to ground fire. Early on, Don Wolfswinkle and I had a tester. Our throttle linkage malfunctioned and we could not advance the power once we reduced it. Luckily, we made this discovery at altitude. With a long, shallow decent, and a lot of sweat, we managed to nurse the remaining engine power back to Bien Hoa.
In September, our rocket tubes finally arrived and were attached to the wings. We got to shoot rockets for qualification on 12 September. The 19th TASS was then declared operational. VNAF observers climbed in the back seat and we started flying missions for real. Our ROE were simple. VNAF observers were directing the strikes and we, the USAF pilots, were only advisors, so somewhere in every strike mission we had to preface our directions with “the VNAF Observer advises you to hit the smoke,” or words to that effect.
On 21 September, I flew my first mission with VNAF Lieutenant Le Van Trouc and it was the beginning of a lasting relationship. I spent time in his home, met his wife and family, and even have 8 mm movies of the visits. On another mission in the Delta, we landed at Muc Hoa and were headed for lunch at the Province Chief’s home. On the way, we passed some huts made of flattened beer cans where families eked out a living. Le made a point of saying that the reason he was fighting the VC was so his children would not have to live like that. I lost track of him in the confusion of the war ending and I can only believe the worst regarding his fate.
There was a tradition to let you have the day off on your birthday. When mine came up on 1 October, I requested the toughest mission on the FRAG list. Captain Don Curtin was the Scheduling Officer. He woke me at 0430 to make an early takeoff and first light landing at Tay Ninh for a multiple mission briefing. On my 27th birthday, I flew five combat missions in Tay Ninh Province, proving once again that it doesn’t take much jaw work to overtax your dorsal surface.
Toward the end of October, I got to go TDY to Soc Trang and fly missions in the Mekong Delta. It was a lot simpler to navigate in the Delta, and you could also see the VC better. Soc Trang was an Army helicopter base that had a complement of H-19s to transport ARVN troops to and from the battle area. We flew cover enroute, relayed messages, scouted the landing areas, and hung around to direct fire if resistance was encountered.
On 1 November, Dick Whitesides and I were fragged to Bac Lieu to stage for an operation of some sort, but we had just landed when we were ordered back to Soc Trang at all good speed. The coup in Saigon had started and we had to be in an American compound till the outcome was decided. The Diem regime was ousted and the generals took over. On 3 November, I was fragged to Ca Mau to pick up a Colonel Nhon and deliver him to Bac Lieu. He was promoted quickly to general and went on to the ARVN Staff in Saigon.
The VC must have sensed the situation and activity heated up all over the Delta. On 4 November, Lieutenant Hoa and I were fragged (callsign Cindy) on a river reconnaissance and found some shooters and sampans on the riverbank at coordinates XR 250 350. We called for air support and Captain Hal Waggoner showed up in a flight of two T-28s with bombs and guns. They got three sampans, two huts and one visually confirmed KIA. On 6 November, I committed the cardinal sin in FACing and lived to relate the tale.
Lieutenant Trouc and I were fragged (call- sign Gina 1) to Bac Lieu in support of a search and destroy mission with the ARVN. The ground element was running four APCs full of infantry troops and a command Jeep to see if they could stir up any targets. Our job was to get out in front and watch for ambush or terrain problems. The US Army had an O-1 out there too as additional liaison. There was a flight of two B-26s with a full compliment of napalm, 100 pound bombs, and .50 caliber, loitering at about 5,000 feet just in case we needed them. We were really on a hunt and it was my largest operation thus far in Vietnam. Right away the Army O-1 reported suspicious activity and asked me to confirm personnel quickly evacuating a village. They had hidden in the rice paddies just along a tree line and I came in to take a look. It only took one pass to confirm the personnel were old women and children. No real threat and I felt good that we skirted them and the ARVN didn’t start shooting at them. About 20 minutes later, the Army O-1 reported some more suspicious movement at WR 600 470 that appeared to be armed VC heading for a rice paddy. With the previous sighting of suspicious personnel fresh in my mind, I sort of assumed the same results – old women and children. We passed over the suspect rice paddy and didn’t see a thing. The Army O-1 pilot assured me that we were over the right spot, so we dropped down to about 500 feet and took another look. I didn’t see anything, but Lieutenant Trouc said he saw what looked like a foot sticking out of the rice. Well, now I committed the sin. I dropped down to less than 50 feet to make a third pass over the invisible unidentified personnel. That enticed them to stand up, identify themselves and start shooting just as I was about 50 meters away at less than 50 feet above the ground and headed straight for all 25, or so, of them. Enough bar talk and hangar flying had prepared me not to immediately pull up and turn away. All that would have done was present a larger and slower target. The engine and battery in front of me gave a little protection, but not much comfort. I went to full throttle and flew right through the middle of them with Lieutenant Trouc yelling, “They shooting, they shooting.”
All I could say was, “No shit, no shit.”
I could see the VC up close and personal as we imitated a clay pigeon flying by. We were so close that I could see the empty shells ejecting from the chambers of their weapons and long streaks of flame and smoke belching from the muzzles. No whites of the eyes. The rounds slammed into the paddy dikes and splattered mud all over the side of the plane. Then maybe that was Trouc and me leaving a trail! We passed through that shooting gallery and never took a hit. A couple of hundred meters and a tree line later I pull up to reacquire the now hostile target and mark it with a WP rocket. I was “calmly” communicating (more like squealing and holler- ing) with the two B-26s on CAP, inviting them to come on down, join in, and hit my smoke. They did, and by that time the VC were on the run trying to get out of the rice paddy and into a better defensive position. The first pass was napalm by both B-26s and it caught most of the VC still in the paddy. KBA everywhere, and not a pretty sight. Then each B-26 expended their load of 100 pounders and about 1,500 rounds of .50 caliber into the remaining runners. Between each pass by the B-26s, Lieutenant Trouc was standing up in the back seat firing his M-1 Carbine out the left rear window of our O-1. The expended empty shells were hitting me in the back of the head and, you guessed it, one of them went down the collar of my flight suit. It was hot and caused immediate concern. It took a couple of seconds to figure out what the discomfort was and to realize I hadn’t been shot. The whole time Lieutenant Trouc was shooting, he was yelling, “Number-ten VC, number-ten VC,” at his targets. Later, I asked why, and he replied, “They couldn’t even hit us when we were close and slow. They were number-ten gunners.” I personally was glad for that.
The Jeep and APCs soon arrived and took charge of the situation. They only found 11 bodies. The rest of the day was routine. On the way back to Bac Lieu, we saw a wedding procession making its way along the paddy dikes to a small village. All that bombing and shooting didn’t seem to bother them. When we finally touched down back at Soc Trang, Lieutenant Trouc and I had logged four combat missions and flown seven hours and 25 minutes. After that day, I never crossed another unidentified target again on a third pass. I did however get low and stay low on numerous occasions.
The very next day, 7 November, I had another serious failure in judgment and again I lived to tell about it. Lieutenant Thanh and I were scheduled to sit alert at Soc Trang from 0700 till 1700, and we sat there all day. It wasn’t too bad since we were lying around the alert trailer at the end of the airfield and got to do a lot of reading and letter writing. We strolled down to the O’Club for lunch and then about 1715 a couple of other FACs dropped in at the trailer for a beer. It was always easier to get the FACs to stop in for a debriefing if there was beer there. My alert tour was over, so I decided to have one with them. As luck would have it, the alert phone rang at 1735 and the scramble was on. There was some ARVN in trouble about 10 miles south of Soc Trang and we were to join up with two T-28s also jumping out of Soc Trang.
The sudden rush of impending combat jerked me back to reality as I sucked down the last few drops of beer. Lieutenant Thanh and I raced for the already pre-flighted O-1 and as I jumped through the open door, my right knee caught the door-mounted map case and abruptly stopped my dramatic entry. The recoil threw me back through the air and I ended up on my butt next to the airplane with all my equipment scattered around me. You can imagine the dismay of Lieutenant Thanh. His pilot was not at the peak of expected performance. Had he had too many throttles? Did the intrepid observer really want to fly with his malfunctioning pilot this late in the day? Before he could run away, I sprang to my feet and remounted the O-1.
Editor’s Note: Ba Mui Ba was the most common Vietnamese beer. The words mean the number 33.
Lieutenant Thanh climbed into the rear seat as I started the mighty war bird and we were off in a shot, so to speak. The two T-28s passed us up on the way to the target and by the time we got there, another FAC, Texas Bravo, was working the strike. We hung around like an extra bridesmaid just in case we could render assistance, but none was needed and we RTB’d after logging a whopping 20 minutes of flight time. Lieutenant Thanh flew with me numerous times after that and he never seemed worried, or at least he never let on if he was. I never had another beer in the alert trailer, even when debriefing.
I did, from time to time, amaze myself with my own blind luck. On 25 November, Lieutenant Duc and I were flying a combat observation mission out of Kien Giang in the Delta. This particular day, we were armed with four colored smoke rockets and a sack full of WP marking grenades. Smoke grenades were not one of our favorite marking devices since they had to be delivered at close quarters. Further, if one was dropped in the cockpit after arming, it could get dicey. We spotted a small, recently constructed hooch on the bank of a canal at VS 830 230. A couple of sampans were on the bank and one appeared to have automatic weapons on board. A closer look at the hooch revealed a radio antenna protruding through the thatched roof. Duc got on the air and asks if the ARVN have any activity there. There was none. All of a sudden, black pajama-clad VC showed up and unloaded some automatic weapon fire in our direction. How did I know they were VC? They were shooting at me. That was the first and most positive form of identification. We called for air. No air available. We called for artillery and got the same answer. We watched as they packed up and loaded the sampans. We discussed our dilemma and decided we needed to at least mark the target. One sampan was already under way, and the other one was being loaded by the last departee. Lieu- tenant Duc held the WP grenade outside the aircraft and armed it. There was a reason for that, as I mentioned. I rolled in for a marking pass with rockets. The last departee makes a beeline for the hooch and dived in. Having calculated windage, altitude, azimuth and airspeed, I call for Duc to release the grenade. It obediently followed the VC into the hooch and exploded, blowing out the walls and erupting into a white fireball fueled by munitions still in the structure. Lieutenant Duc was duly impressed with my attack skills. I was absolutely dumbfounded. Log entry, “Sighted VC command post, destroyed same.” That was not my last KBA.
On November 26, Lieutenant Mao and I worked my first multi-target/multi-aircraft mission in the lower Delta region south of Ca Mau. At Ca Mau they cleared a downtown street and blocked most of the ground traffic so we could land for the Province Chief’s operational briefing. That was normal procedure at “Ca Mau International Airport.” There were three active targets that needed attention, WQ 133 857, WQ 105 777, and WQ 113 795. The VC had been very aggressive the past few days with attacks on villages and ARVN patrols in the area. The air resources were Lobo (two T-28s), Roy (two B-26s), George (two B-26s), Camel (three T-28s), and Aero Yellow (four A-1Hs). Ordnance was cataloged, targets were identified and the attack was on. It was a hell of a day, but before the time when body count became so important; and so, although we killed a lot of VC, I didn’t record the numbers in my logbook. I did note that we flew seven hours and 35 minutes taking off at 0645 and landing for the last time at 1945 back at Soc Trang.
There were more good days than bad in Vietnam, but 20 December was one of the really bad ones. I flew with Lieutenant Duy on a riverboat escort west of Ca Mau around VR 790 035. The boats got in a firefight and we helped out with Lobo Flight, two T-28s. They took out one hut and four sampans. The Navy reported the enemy neutralized, but they did not go ashore to check out casualties. All this was just a routine day until Lieutenant Duy and I returned to Soc Trang for the debriefing at the alert trailer.
Don Mollicone, United States Naval Academy 1960 and Bill Coley, Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College 1960 were hanging around the trailer since they had dropped into Soc Trang to trade out one of our airplanes that needed scheduled maintenance back at Bien Hoa. Don and I had gone through pilot training at Laredo and I met his fiancée, later his wife, at graduation in September 1961. Bill was a new guy who took a lot of the usual heat that graduates of Texas A&M get used to. They departed the trailer and headed for the plane for preflight and takeoff. The departure of an O-1 is not an event to draw a crowd, so we started for the bar. If you remember, I had quit drinking in the alert trailer. About the time we got beer in hand at the O’Club all hell broke loose with ambulances and emergency vehicles rolling. We took off on foot in hot pursuit to find the O-1 rolled up in a ball against the side of a drainage ditch at the departure end of the runway. Both Don and Billy were killed on impact and I arrived on scene just in time to assist in the unpleasant task of extracting the bodies.
The account given by the Army tower operator who cleared them for take off was that he observed the aircraft make an abrupt pull up after lift off and start a turn away from the field. The engine seemed to quit and the aircraft stalled in a nose high attitude. The plane impacted the ground still inside the airfield perimeter, skidded across a drainage ditch, and slammed into the wall of the ditch on the other side. Investigation of the accident revealed that both wing tanks were near empty. The O-1 fuel gage set up was primitive at best. The full mark and the empty mark were right together, separated by a little peg on each circular dial. Right of the peg was empty, left of the peg was full, as best I remember. At a quick glance, the gages could appear to read full when the tank was really empty. That’s why the preflight checklist calls for a visual fuel check through the filler caps on top of each wing. Apparently, neither Don nor Billy checked, and the result was two good lives wasted.
As the time went on in Vietnam, I recorded less and less in my makeshift logbook. It got down to takeoff and landing times, aircraft number, observer’s name, and dates. After almost 40 years, the memories are hard to jog. I’m just glad I took the notes I did.
My last two combat missions in Vietnam were logged on 27 July 1964, each one hour long. Don’t have a clue what I was doing or why. As of that date, I had flown 508 combat missions, logged over 750 hours of combat flight time, and hadn’t taken a single hit.
My experience in Vietnam led me to believe we were winning and it would be a short war. The question in my mind was the Vietnamese leadership, not ours. How sadly wrong I was on both counts. The 19th TASS was in the process of turning over all our O-1s to the VNAF and the South Vietnamese were going to finish it on their own.
I do know that I left for the land of the big BX on 2 August 1964, after a 24-hour mechanical delay in Saigon. The first paper I picked up in California a few days later related the satchel bombing of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon the evening of 2 August 1964. That was where we spent the night on 1 August due to the mechanical delay. My luck continued. There was also an incidental story on a back page about some North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacking a couple of US Navy destroyers out in the Gulf Of Tonkin.
I may not have learned much in this world, but one truth seems to keep constant and that is my perception of reality is not always the same as other folks interpretation of the same piece of reality. More important, both interpretations may well be wrong!